Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Van de Kamp ‘Barbecued’ Over Decision to Seek Dismissal of Murder Charges Against Hillside Strangler
By ROGER M. GRACE
Ninety-Third in a Series
JOHN VAN DE KAMP is generally attributed with one huge blunder as district attorney—a move that that haunted him in his 1990 race for the Democratic nomination for governor. He authorized a prosecution motion, made on July 13, 1981, to dismiss the 10 murder charges against Angelo Buono, one of two “Hillside Stranglers” who kidnapped, raped, and killed young females—their ages ranging from 12 to 28—in the Hollywood-Glendale area.
The case couldn’t be won, the prosecutors in the case, Roger Kelly and James Heins, had told Van de Kamp, and he accepted their assessment. But the case was won. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald M. George (now California’s chief justice) denied the motion to dismiss; the case went to the state Attorney General’s Office; Buono was convicted on nine counts.
Van de Kamp, now of counsel to Dewey & LeBoeuf, says that his deputies, conveyed to him “their analysis of the case,” uttered in good faith, “that they thought the case could not be won.” He elaborates:
“[T]he major witness had been very shaken up, I guess in the preliminary hearing, and was not credible, and so they recommended to me that they dismiss the homicide charges and that we go ahead on some unrelated sex charges that would keep the guy in jail for a substantial period of time. So that’s when we filed our motion before Ron George.
“In retrospect, they were wrong.”
The witness was Buono’s cousin, Kenneth Bianchi, the other member of the Hillside Strangler duo, who, after being arrested in the state of Washington for murdering two girls, confessed to his crimes in Los Angeles and agreed to testify here against Buono in exchange for being spared the death penalty.
Van de Kamp continues:
“We made the motion, the judge denied it, we then counseled among ourselves as to what to do, we thought because of the belief that the office had about the case, through the deputies, that we should then, ethically, transfer the case to the attorney general since we didn’t feel, in good faith, that we could proceed with the case.”
He recounts that two deputies in the AG’s Office, Roger Boren and Michael Nash, “took a brand new look at the case, put the case together—had a whole bunch of people take a look at it at the beginning—and decided that they could proceed with the case, and won it….”
The “bunch of people” were former prosecutors: J. Miller Leavy, who had gained convictions in some of the Los Angeles’s most high-profile cases; Albert Meloling, who had served as senior deputy district attorney in Alameda County; Howard Gilbert, who had held the same post as Meloling; and Robert Tanenbaum, who had served as deputy chief of the Homicide Bureau in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. (Tanenbaum is now a novelist; the other three are deceased.)
Meeting together on Aug. 10, 1981, they concluded unanimously that the case could be won.
“In retrospect,” Van de Kamp says, “the question is whether or not we should have had a whole bunch of other people take a look at this case….I think there’s an argument that could be made that we should have done that.”
How would he resolve that argument in his own mind? Should he have bounced the matter off of others? Van de Kamp buffers his response with the statement that “[i]In looking backwards—hindsight is always the best test,” but answers: “yeah.”
In attendance at the meeting of the consultants were Boren, now presiding justice of Div. Two of this district’s Court of Appeal, and Nash, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.
They had been assigned at that point merely to evaluate the evidence and, Nash recalls, it was generally assumed that lawyers with broader experience would be tapped if there were to be a prosecution.
By the time the meeting was held, he says, he and Boren had met with sheriff’s deputies and police officers, conferred with Kelly and Heins (who are now deceased), thoroughly looked at the evidence, and had “pretty much decided this was a prosecutable case.”
Nash recounts that “within days,” he and Boren met with Attorney General George Deukmejian (later governor) “for probably the better part of the day” and “gave him our take.” At the end, he says, the AG declared that the case would be prosecuted and directed:
“You guys go do it.”
The boner that the deputy DAs had made, Nash opines, is that they were “fixated on the importance of Kenneth Bianchi to the case,” and to them, his lack of credibility “overshadowed everything else.”
The judge comments:
“There was massive independent evidence. There was corroboration.”
Corroboration is needed when inculpatory testimony comes from an accomplice.
Bianchi, in confessing and implicating Buono, told of matters “only the killer could have known about,” Nash notes.
He acknowledges that Bianchi “made the case incredibly difficult” to prove.
How was a man who admitted to having committed the slayings an impediment to the prosecution? Senior Judge Stephen S. Trott of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will answer that one. At the time of the decision to move for dismissal of the murder charges, Trott was head deputy in Santa Monica, and earlier had served as Van de Kamp’s chief deputy. He says of Buono:
“He faked multiple personalities. His testimony at the preliminary hearing was a disaster.”
Trott recites that Heins came to him one day and quoted Bianchi as telling him:
“Give me a script and I’ll say anything you want.”
The plan, he says, to was try Buono on pandering charges—“It was not acceptable to keep Buono out on the streets”—dismiss the murder counts, but “keep working on the case until they got the evidence” as to the slayings.
Trott explains that the thinking was that if the case were tried then by Kelly and Heins on the existing evidence, “odds are they would lose the case,” and jeopardy would attach.
The jurist says Van de Kamp assumed a “perfectly principled position,” adding that the decision to seek dismissal was “a profile in courage.”
He bemoans the lack of public understanding as to Van de Kamp’s motivation.
“John has been barbecued for that Hillside Strangler case,” he says.
As Trott remembers it, when the AG’s Office went to trial, it “had what Roger [Kelly] and Jim [Heins] did not”: evidence that “fibers on the bodies of victims matched up” with fibers at Buono’s upholstery shop/home.
Van de Kamp’s successor as district attorney, Robert H. Philibosian, disputes that.
“There was no new evidence” in the hands of the AG’s Office, he says flatly.
Philibosian was chief assistant attorney general in Deukmejian’s office, and made the initial decision to route the Hillside Strangler case to Boren and Nash.
The DA’s Office, he says, was “relying on Kenneth Bianchi as chief witness and they ignored a lot of the physical evidence the police were trying to bring to their attention.”
Van de Kamp apparently was not apprised of the crucial fiber evidence. Kelly had set forth all his reasons for believing Buono could not be convicted in a 32-page memorandum for Van de Kamp (which was leaked to the Los Angeles Times). It did not mention the fibers. Darcy O’Brien, in his 2000 book, “The Hillside Stranglers,” comments:
“The memorandum ignored much of the evidence against Buono, including new and highly promising conclusions about the fibers found on [victim] Lauren Wagner’s hands and wrists. (Kathy Vukovitch, the LAPD criminalist, had by now pretty well established that the Lauren Wagner fibers matched the rug, made from automobile carpeting, in the spare bedroom where, Bianchi had said, he and Angelo had tried to electrocute Lauren. The rug had still been in place when Angelo had been arrested. Other fibers from Lauren’s hands matched an accumulation of material found in the crevices of the seat of the brown vinyl easy chair—an unusual collection of fibers that acted like geological sedimentation as evidence of time and place.”
O’Brien notes that the evidence placed Wagner “in the very chair in which Bianchi had said that she had been gagged and blindfolded and in the very room where she had been killed.” He remarks:
“It was exactly the kind of circumstantial evidence needed under California law to corroborate the testimony of an accomplice. It was a means of separating Bianchi’s lies from his truths.”
Boren, in his 2000 article “The Hillside Strangler Trial” in the Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, makes note of that evidence, and this:
“Sheriff’s investigators had collected a white polyester fiber found on [victim] Judy Miller’s eye. The fiber matched upholstery material found in Buono’s shop. Bianchi told how he and Buono used similar material to blindfold their manacled victims.”
Nash confirms that the “fiber evidence was very significant.”
Indeed, it appears that Van de Kamp made the call to move for dismissal based on two deputies’ highly negligent misrepresentation, through omissions, of the state of the evidence.
This brings to mind DA Evelle J. Younger’s boner in joining in the defense’s motion for a new trial in the case of a convicted slayer of two young girls. He acted based on the prosecuting attorney’s representation to him that the defense attorney had been drunk during the trial. Younger expressed certainty the man, Anthony Dontanville, would be convicted upon the retrial. It turned out that the defense lawyer had not been drunk; the defendant was acquitted at the second trial.
The current DA, Steve Cooley, commissioned a raid on this newspaper’s office five years back based on a wholly distorted perception of the facts, imparted to him by bungling staff members.
I can identify with this. Several years ago, this newspaper was sued in Municipal Court over a bill. We were willing to pay what I had agreed to pay; the plaintiff billed for more, after the services were performed. During testimony, I realized that the associate publisher had authorized a higher amount but, even after we were sued, didn’t confess to me that he had done so. We owed the money.
Van de Kamp has, in Trott’s words, been “barbecued” over a reasoned decision based on misinformation provided him by deputies in whom he placed his trust.
Buono’s trial stretched from Nov. 16, 1981 to Nov. 18, 1983. Boren, in his 2000 article, makes note of Van de Kamp’s election in 1982 as attorney general and observes:
“Van De Kamp was once again, at least technically, the overseer of the Hillside Strangler trial despite his abandonment of it just a year and a half earlier.”
Not only had Van de Kamp, as district attorney, authorized a motion to dismiss the prosecution but, in a moment when his customary candor prevailed over his usual cool judgment, he told a Herald Examiner reporter, in defense of his decision: “I think we will be vindicated in the long run.” In other words, he predicted an acquittal.
Philibosian says that Van de Kamp, as AG, cut himself off from any connection with the prosecution by Boren and Nash. Nash offers the view that his action was “an appropriate one.”
O’Brien writes that relations between Van de Kamp and his deputies Boren and Nash were “uneasy,” and reports:
“When an emissary from the Attorney General’s Office came to them and suggested that they release a public statement saying that Angelo Buono had been convicted because of new evidence that had surfaced during the course of the trial, long after Roger Kelly and Van de Kamp’s motion to drop murder charges, Boren and Nash refused. They insisted that all the important evidence, including the Lauren Wagner fibers, had been known from the beginning.”
In 1989, as the gubernatorial campaign approached and it became clear that Van de Kamp’s decision in the Hillside Strangler case would be used as an issue against him, the attorney general publicly conceded:
“In hindsight, it is clear that I was wrong in my assessment of the strength of the evidence.”
The statement was made in reaction to an April 6 Dan Walters column forecasting that Buono would become to Van de Kamp the election-crusher that Willie Horton was the year before to presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Democratic nominee Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts; his prison furlough program enabled convicted murderer Horton, while out of custody, to commit a rape.
Van de Kamp was battered, in the course of the campaign for the Democratic nod, in connection with the call he had made in 1981. He desisted from seeking to deflect blame from himself by pointing out that misinformation had been fed to him by his deputies.
Although Van de Kamp acknowledges error in the Hillside Strangler case, to put that error in perspective, he points out in an interview:
“If you look at the other cases that we handled during that period of time—if you look at the whole series of fairly large cases that we won, one way or the other—the Bill and Emily Harris [kidnappers of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst], the Sunset Murder cases, the Freeway Killer cases, Skid Row Slasher, [Alphabet Bomber Muharem] Kurbegovic, which was a case that lasted forever…those are very important cases. Those were all won.”
A nagging question is: did George usurp the role of prosecutor in the Hillside Strangler case by spurning, on the basis his own assessment of the evidence, a prosecution bid for dismissal? “Yeah, I thought he did, I thought he did,” Van de Kamp responds. He adds that to George’s credit, however, “it turned out that his judgment was right.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company